Already Strained Cities are Struggling to Support Arriving Migrants
Immigrants need social services, English language instruction, and shelter services from an already strained system -- more help is needed.
In early April, the first bus of migrants arrived in New York City and Washington, DC at the direction of the Governor of Texas -- mostly from Colombia, Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Since then there have been thousands of migrants bused to Chicago, New York City and Washington, DC by the Governors of Texas and Arizona. When reading the headlines, we need to remember there is a human element. As the buses keep arriving, the need for even more support is increasingly clear, and asylum-seekers are falling through the holes of an already stretched social safety net.
Most of the migrants on these buses are from Venezuela. Since 2014, nearly 7 million Venezuelans have fled their country due to a humanitarian catastrophe -- the second-largest displacement crisis in the world today, after Ukraine. As one Fellow at Brookings put it:
Their situation is so desperate that, in order to reach the United States, they need to cross seven countries, passing through the very dangerous Darién Gap, the jungle linking South to Central America between Colombia and Panama. Many simply don’t make it.
While the impact of Central American migration is being felt throughout North America, it is important to remember that this is not a new phenomenon. Many millions of Central Americans have migrated to the U.S. over the years in search of a better life. Since 1980, the country's overall Central American-born population has increased more than tenfold. The 3.8 million Central American immigrants living in the U.S. in 2019 made up 8% of the nation's foreign-born population of 44.9 million people.
The following is a look at the ongoing humanitarian crisis and its impact on cities, public education, and implications for state and local finances.
A National Humanitarian Crisis
Many Central American migrants are fleeing violence and poverty in their home countries. In Honduras, the homicide rate is one of the highest in the world (41.2 per 100,000 in 20201). And in El Salvador, nearly a quarter of the population lives in poverty. It is not just violence and poverty that are driving Central Americans to migrate. According to the UN, the prevalence of hunger in Latin America and the Caribbean is 9.1% -- a 15 year high.
In an story for the Chicago Sun Times Lourdes Gouveia, a professor emeritus of the University of Nebraska at Omaha noted:
This is a moment where, especially because of the economic collapse, there’s majority scarcity in medicines, food, essentials. A middle class essentially disappears at this time, and Venezuelans overwhelmingly join the ranks of the poor.
When Central American migrants finally reach the United States, they often face difficult living conditions with many ending up in overcrowded detention facilities. And even those who are released from detention often face challenges finding work, housing, and healthcare. The influx of Central American migrants has put a strain on local resources in the communities where they settle.
Mayors of cities receiving migrants bused from Texas and Arizona have been asking the Federal government for assistance. In Illinois, Governor Pritzker issued an emergency disaster proclamation to free up transportation, housing and medical services to asylum seekers that have arrived in the state over the last several weeks. An in D.C. the City Council, at the Mayor’s urging, passed emergency legislation to create a new government office to provide temporary services to migrants. While there are immediate needs for migrants in terms of food and housing, in the long-term these new arrivals will need jobs and children may need to be enrolled in the school system. It is important communities have the resources to welcome these immigrants.
Public Schools and English Language Learners (ELLs) in the U.S.
New York City estimated at least 1,000 students from bused migrants are expected to enroll in city schools. Many of these students will need extra support, including mandated services for children leaning English as a new language.
Children who are ELLs have the right to be instructed in traditional English as a new language, meaning their classes are held in English but are supposed to get extra support and translation help during and outside of class. They can also choose bilingual programs or dual language instruction, although most NYC schools lack such programming, according to program data from last school year.
English language classes are crucial for multilingual homes as it can open opportunities for them and parents because students are often English to Spanish translators and vice versa. Schools also provide important mental health services and adjusting to a new culture. These children have witnessed and endured difficult experiences and we must keep in mind their mental wellbeing.
According to an article in Education Week,
These youth and their families often experience what mental health providers call “acculturation stress.” Kids may experience alienation and isolation in their schools and neighborhoods. They may have problems fitting in at school, straddling their former and newer identities. Their families may worry they’re becoming “too American.”
As noted before, school education budgets are strained by a Multidimensional Crisis Facing the U.S. Public Education System. Schools seeing a new influx of ELLs is another challenge on top of many. Recently in Seattle, the school system is facing a shortfall of nearly $200 million over three years after settling teacher contracts. According to Ed Note, “most states fund English language learners through the state funding formula or a categorical program” and costs vary dramatically across grade levels.
According to national data, the percentage of public school students in the U.S. who were ELLs has increased — in fall 2019 it was 10.4% or 5.1 million students. This growth is in traditional and new immigrant-destination states. The issues of ensuring students from migrant or refugee backgrounds get the resources they need is not new. As districts struggle with new financial challenges programs need to be developed, and resources allocated, to ensure educational achievement among ELLs does not fall behind further.
New York City Shelter System at a Breaking Point
New York City has had a right to shelter for decades, which means that anyone without a roof above their head can obtain one through the city-funded homeless shelter system and get a basic safety net not seen elsewhere in the nation. With an influx of new migrants to the city, Mayor Adams said the law "must be reassessed," an action that sparked outrage among civil rights groups and homeless advocates.
Homelessness is a chronic problem in New York City and many cities across the U.S. The influx of migrants to the U.S. coupled with the city’s shelter law has created new problems that require more resources and support. Former Mayor de Blasio’s plan called for opening 90 dedicated shelter buildings by the end of 2023. However, dozens have yet to open for various reasons, including community opposition. The city is now scrambling to catch up, but with more people arriving, it might not be enough.
With over 10,000 asylum seekers crowding homeless shelters, the city is looking to erect temporary structures to hold new arrivals for their first few days. It was recently reported that New York City converted a hotel near Madison Square Garden into an intake and assessment center with rooms for nearly 300 families and single adults. The city is also erecting a 1,000-bed tent facility for adult asylum seekers in the Orchard Beach section of the Bronx – although it will not comply with the city’s shelter law.
Bloomberg estimates the overall cost for 8,500 asylum seekers in New York City is $1.6 million per day. Governors, Mayors, and other local leaders are asking the Federal government for support. The Mayor of D.C. asked the Pentagon for National Guard support, but it has been repeatedly denied. The White House is assisting cities that have taken in relocated people, with FEMA representatives on site to coordinate efforts to receive federal assistance according to the Press Secretary. Funding for local governments and non-profits is being sent through FEMA’s emergency food and shelter program to aid humanitarian relief for immigrants.
The U.S. Labor Force Relies on Immigration
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2019 there were 28.4 million foreign-born people in the U.S. labor force, comprising 17.4% of the total. Foreign born workers and immigrants to the U.S. have been a substantial contributor to the country’s economy. They also disproportionately work in essential services like construction, manufacturing, transportation and utilities. However, government policy during the past administration and restriction on movement during the pandemic have upended the flow of immigrant labor.
One study by Brookings notes that the population of migrants, predominantly men of Venezuelan origin, is especially young with an average age of 30 (and ranging between 18 and 55) and would greatly benefit the currently tight labor market. The gap between the demand for labor and its supply had been forming since 2017. By 2018, the U.S. economy had increasingly more job openings than unemployed workers. The COVID pandemic made things worse. The government issued a record 813,330 temporary employment-based visas in 2019, then that fell by a third to 566,000 in 2020, and the numbers were basically flat in 2021.
The Economist has noted that “the real crisis is not border crossings but a shortage of new arrivals.” One researcher estimates that the U.S. was missing roughly 1.8 million working-age foreign migrants relative to its post-2010 trend. Now, industries with higher shares of migrant workers tend to have higher vacancy rates. There was a recent Harvard Business Review article that noted several books published drawing on data and personal stories making the same point: “Immigrant populations power economies and enrich cultures.”
The U.S. Needs Immigration
The U.S. should embrace the flow of immigration in a reasonable manner. Doing so would be beneficial for the economy, businesses, and the workforce. It would also be the morally right thing to do.
There are several reasons for this:
The economy needs more workers. The baby boomers are retiring, and there are not enough people in the workforce to replace them.
Immigrants tend to be younger than the native-born population, which can help offset the effects of an aging workforce.
Immigrants are more likely than native-born Americans to start businesses and are responsible for about one-quarter of all new businesses in the U.S.
Immigrants bring new ideas and perspectives that can spur innovation and economic growth.
In the words of James Madison (1787),
America was indebted to immigration for her settlement and prosperity. That part of America which had encouraged them most had advanced most rapidly in population, agriculture and the arts.
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